Advertising in the era of digital calorie-counting

Advertising in the era of digital calorie-counting

If people start putting their phones down, this will have a huge impact on advertising. How should brands prepare for that?

More than 10,000 steps. Less than 2,000 calories. Five portions a day. Eight hours a night. When it comes to health, we love having a number to obsess over. Is the next obsession going to be how many minutes we spend looking at our phones daily?

The "digital detox" concept isn’t new, but recently it has begun to enter the public consciousness in a new way as the idea of "time well-spent" (coined by Silicon Valley ethicist Tristan Harris) spreads to the mainstream.

In 2018, all the major tech companies and platforms created tools to let users monitor and even reduce their time on devices and apps.

Meanwhile, public consciousness also shifted to a more definite consensus that too much time looking at a phone screen is bad for mental and physical well-being.

With both the technical functionality and the will to change in place, the question is: what happens if people start putting their phones down?

The marketing value of eyeballs via mobile is obvious. Any big reduction in time spent here will have a huge impact on advertising, which in its own way has developed an addiction to the power of the smartphone screen.

There are two huge questions to consider.

1 What are the channel implications?

If attention is shifting, then we need to understand where it’s going and how we should react.

The early acolytes of digital wellness are, of course, likely to be Generation Z and millennials. According to Ofcom research, 55% of people aged 16 to 34 feel they use their phone too much and are looking for ways to reduce screen time. Here are a few thought-starters as to where attention might be going instead:

  • Gaming: Gaming is now a larger market than video and music combined. Yet it still seems undervalued by many parts of the advertising industry. Activations within games are still often very basic and the nature of the medium can limit opportunities. However, innovative partnerships, such as Marvel and Fortnite, may show the way for marketing in digital worlds where audiences are spending hundreds of hours. 
  • Audio: While people are concerned about looking at phones, it’s quite the reverse when it comes to listening to them. Audio apps are the most-used feature on many phones and the rise of smart speakers means we are streaming even more, with podcasts leading the "second golden age of audio". The data shows highly engaged audiences and a whole new style of advertising, with some impressive success seen by early adopters. 
  • Digital out-of-home: If we’re looking up from our screens more often, that could mean more eyes on OOH, which still has more headroom in terms of innovation and reach. The number of towns with digital six-sheets will double in 2019 and these screens are getting smarter than ever in terms of creative scope and contextual ability.

These are the most obvious options and it may be too early to precisely predict where attention will shift. But brands that don’t prepare and experiment now risk being left behind if their audience changes behaviour.  

2 What’s the cultural implication?

Brands may be able to jump on the broader "digital wellness" trend.

Any brand that has a stake in health, fitness, nutrition or well-being should be considering the ways in which it can address the arrival of "digital wellness" on the scene.

You can imagine how sporting brands such as Nike or Lululemon, wellness brands such as Headspace, or even cosmetics companies such as Lush, could do bold, exciting work in this space.

However, brands should first consider their own culpability in the problems they might claim they want to solve. Nike’s excellent training apps still come from the same design philosophy that the Time Well Spent movement rails against – with intrusive push notifications, addictive gamification and social pressure that keeps users glued to their phones. Nike might justifiably protest that it is doing this in the name of keeping people healthy, but there’s still a question as to how far the end justifies the means.

Ultimately, any brand that wants to make a serious play in this space needs to review and acknowledge its own participation in the worst excesses of the attention economy and act accordingly. When it comes to digital wellness, brands should first look inwards and only then think how they might contribute. 

What next?

Be prepared for changing attention patterns.

There are interesting times ahead. Will consumers embrace the new functionality and take back control? Will digital diets start to be quantified and reviewed as much as physical ones? And what happens if people resist efforts to fight screen addiction? Will tech providers, brands or even governments push harder to reduce screen time? Whatever happens, the ad industry should expect change and challenge, and be ready to adapt as our audiences’ attention evolves.

Richard Langrish is head of social and influencer and Rob Meiklejohn is a senior planner at TMW Unlimited

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